Monday, April 09, 2007

Dinner with a hook

Here's an article I wrote about my favorite restaurant in Tokyo:

For more pictures of what it's like to catch your own dinner, click here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Culture Day

Nasal automated announcements sparked up nostalgia. I was back aboard bus 67 bound for Kanokita Junior High. The smokestack of the ward garbage incinerator loomed in the distance, marking the vicinity of where I once taught perverted boys and sometimes drunk girls, underachievers all.

No lessons were scheduled. Today was Culture Day, a national holiday every November when some schools stage student performances to parents, friends – or in my case – former staff. I had been looking forward to the reunion ever since Ms. Hattori had mentioned it during our summer outing. (Nothing like accepting a causal invitation.)

I hopped off the bus in front of the familiar grocery store, the source of mid-morning sustenance in between uncontrollable classes. Teachers and parents welcomed guests at the main gate. I felt out of place returning half a year after saying good-bye for what I thought was forever. I no longer worked there, and the connection to former students had faded in my absence.

After all, I was an English-speaking mouth contracted for a niche role for a limited time only. Another interchangeable part had since replaced me, this one imported from Australia. Over the summer, Ms. Hattori told me that he was a “very strong” teacher. Given these students, teachers had to be able to take it on the chin. Repeatedly.

Some kids came up to me to touch hair especially spiked for the occasion. Coming back after graduation is a chance to show off just how cool you’ve become (which I reinforced wearing a “Local Celebrity” t-shirt).

Some students matched my “maturity.” A metal ball pierced Maki’s chin. For the boys, longer hair seemed en vogue, and leader of the pack Me Too Pants Dropper sprouted a Japanese-style fro. A year older, students were also a year closer to the edge of rebellious adolescence. Some had already succumbed to its teenage temptations. I bumped into Harajuku Boy in the courtyard. His cherubic smile couldn’t mask the odor of tobacco on his uniform. We traded an awkward hello.

Next to him was another boy I recognized with hair now colored auburn. Theoretically rigid school rules forbid individual forms of expression like dyed hair, long hair, piercings, makeup, or any markings or accessories on the skin or uniform (much less Marlboros). I spoke to him in Japanese because the only English to ever come out of his mouth was piecemeal vulgarities. He, too, reeked of smoke, and I challenged him about it. Instead of an apology, he stunned me again by whipping out a condom from his uniform pocket. The smoking, the sex. I didn’t know where to begin, and didn’t have the language skills to try. I shook my head and walked inside the gym-turned-auditorium.

Culture Day at Kanokita consisted of each class singing a song on stage. The PTA judged the contest before doing a number themselves with some of the teachers and principal, which nearly plunged the place into chaos because so few teachers remained to police order.

On a day with the outside community present, there was still no hope of hiding hallmarks of disorder. Despite an auditorium full of their parents, students were raising hell for teachers embattled like Anglos at the Alamo. In Japan, schools are expected to shoulder the burden of disciplining teenagers, and parents can fault the school if their child causes trouble even off its grounds.

Speaking of trouble, among the rows of students I spotted the Tribe of Terror – a girl-powered tornado that swirled through the hallways kicking up insurrection. They intimidated students and teachers alike, and I was no exception. The white-haired principal tried unsuccessfully to confiscate their cell phones while other teachers shushed clamor that drowned out the half-hearted singing. One bright spot, however, was watching Mr. “Do you play sex, everyday?” lead his class as their conductor. Their melody moved me to take this video clip:

At lunch, I caught up with last year’s youngest mischief-makers, including Crotch Grabber. We cracked a few old jokes before I was told I could go to the supermarket to buy food and eat it with the custodians downstairs. So much for the days of eating with the students.

After lunch, the opening act of a dozen kids was decidedly awful, until I realized they were the “handicapped” class I once guest lectured. Their gentle ways had been a refreshing contrast to the clowns upstairs. With this tough crowd, they were courageous to sing on stage no matter how off key.

I couldn’t understand a word of the school play (but took cues from the backdrop that it was set in a forest), and decided it was time to leave.

The main gate was blocked.

The Tribe of Terror had been kicked outside and took up positions along the perimeter where they listened to music on their cell phones and picked on anybody who came into range. Heading straight toward Seiko and Maki – the eye of the storm – my stomach clenched. Sure enough, they harassed me one last time, sending me off with the big nose song. While I was happy to reconnect with students who gave me such inspiration for writing, I was even happier to leave them under someone else’s responsibility.

The reunion took an unexpected turn on the train station platform when I was tapped on the shoulder. It was Mr. Yamato, Nubata’s young yet overworked English teacher. Although it was a national holiday, he had been at school coaching the tennis club, a sport he admittedly knew little about. I congratulated him on being promoted to a homeroom teacher, and of course asked about my favorite students, a decidedly more docile breed than those at Kanokita. They hadn’t forgotten me either. On the first day when their new foreign English teacher was introduced, he heard murmurs of, “Hey, that’s not Jeff. Where’s Jeff?”

If only this year’s crop of students at Shin Gakko were half as sincere. More updates to follow.